People have long speculated how a third World War might start and play out. But in the alt-history military sci-fi short story anthology Weird World War III, we got to see what might happen if things got, well, you know. With this collection newly available in mass market paperback (it was originally released as a trade paperback and on Kindle last year), I decided to get weird with its editor, Sean Patrick Hazlett, for the following email interview.
Let’s start with the basics: What is the theme of Weird World War III? What’s the commonality between these stories?
Weird World War III was inspired by the fusion of two seemingly unrelated concepts. The first was to explore how a war between the United States and Soviet Union may have unfolded. The second was to give that conflict a weird fictional flavor. Think Tom Clancy meets H.P. Lovecraft. After all, what is the existential threat of nuclear annihilation but another manifestation of cosmic horror? After discovering H. P. Lovecraft, I became so enamored with the weird fiction genre that I quickly migrated to the works of Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, Robert W. Chambers, and Thomas Ligotti, among many others. Having original stories from some of today’s most talented weird fiction authors like John Langan and Nick Mamatas builds upon that legacy.
And how weird do things get? Are the writers trying to be realistic within the context of alt history, or does anyone go super weird and, say, have World War III be us against talking monkeys or something?
Very weird, and T.C. McCarthy’s “Zip Ghost” really takes the cake. You’ll have to read the anthology to find out why. All I can say is three words: syphilis and peyote. Other authors write more realistic tales, but each and every one of them has at least one weird or science-fictional element.
Did you start with the idea of things getting weird or did things just get weird as you put this together?
It was really a mixture of both. As I mentioned earlier, each story had to do two things: it had to involve a war between the United States and Soviet Union; and it had to have a weird or science fictional element. After that, the writers were free to run with their unfettered imaginations. In regard to a pattern, the only thread that linked all the stories were the two constraints I just mentioned. You’d think these two criteria might limit the resulting stories, but the variety and breadth of the stories that came in surprised even me.
And is the war in question in these stories always against Soviet Union or are there some in which we’re fighting the European Union or an alliance of African states?
The Soviet Union or post-Soviet Russia and the United States are in all but one story, though the Soviets aren’t always fighting the Americans directly. For instance, in John Langan’s “Second Front,” American astronauts watch as Lovecraftian Mi-Go systematically destroy a Soviet moon base. The late Mike Resnick’s “The Third World War” is the exception. In it, the United States squares up against the Thrice-Named Coalition — you’ll have to read the story to find out why.
Aside from having to fit the theme, what other conditions did the stories have to meet?
Every story in this volume is an original written to theme; there are no reprints. I’d also asked authors to produce stories that were roughly 5,000 words, though the shortest story is fewer than 1,000 words and the longest is over 10,000 words.
Weird World War III is clearly a mix of alternative history and military sci-fi. But are there any other genres at work in this collection?
There are. Both “Zip Ghost” by T.C. McCarthy and “The Third World War” by the late Mike Resnick are hilarious. “Second Front” by John Langan is disturbingly post-apocalyptic and takes place from the vantage point of astronauts on the moon gazing upon clouds of swirling fallout over an Earth struggling to survive in the wake of a limited nuclear exchange between the United States and Soviet Union.
So who originally came up with the idea for this collection?
I did. The kernel for Weird World War III began over two decades ago, when I reported for duty to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Known as the Blackhorse, my unit served as the US Army’s Opposing Forces (OPFOR) at the National Training Center, an installation near Death Valley roughly the size of Rhode Island. The U.S. military conducts wargames there with hundreds of armored vehicles and thousands of soldiers. The Army’s training philosophy is based on the old adage, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war,” so back then, the OPFOR’s mission was to operate like a Soviet-styled mechanized unit and beat the “good guys” so badly they wouldn’t make the same mistakes in combat. We fought so many simulated battles we became extremely proficient in Soviet doctrine and tactics.
But my fascination with the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union began long before that. I was a child of the Cold War, growing up in the late ’70s and ’80s when the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed like a Sword Of Damocles. I devoured thrillers like Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, Ralph Peters’ Red Army, and Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee.
Was there anything particularly challenging about putting this collection together?
The only real challenge in putting this anthology together is the same challenge all editors have: getting authors to turn in their stories on time.
How do you decide what writers to approach about contributing?
I came up with a list of writers based on several key factors. First, they had to have written military science fiction, weird fiction, or a mixture of both. Second, I wanted to ensure I had a good mix of Baen authors and writers who I thought should be introduced to Baen’s core audience. Third, I wanted to feature both well-known headliners like David Drake, Mike Resnick, John Langan, Nick Mamatas, T.C. McCarthy, Brad Torgersen, and Martin Shoemaker as well such talented up-and-comers as Erika L. Satifka, Brian Trent, and Stephen Lawson.
You don’t have to name names if you don’t want, but is there anyone you approached, even though you thought they’d never even respond, and they were like, “Oh, yeah, that sounds cool.”?
Without a doubt, David Drake. It turns out we both served in the same Army unit about three decades apart. When I invited David to submit to the anthology, I mentioned that fact, and I’m pretty sure it helped sway his decision.
The tough thing about producing your first anthology is that you often have to recruit authors before you’ve even pitched the idea to a traditional publisher. The writers you are soliciting have no reason to expect a publisher will ever offer you a contract, but as an editor, you need those authors to have signed on to your project in order to entice a publisher. It’s all very circular. But despite all this, David said yes, and the rest is history.
One writer who did not contribute to Weird World War III is you. Is this because you think someone who edits a short story collection shouldn’t include themselves, and should save that slot for someone else, or is there some other reason you don’t have a story in W.W.W.III?
To be honest, I would have loved to include one of my own stories in Weird World War III. I’ve certainly written two or three of them to date. However, as a first-time editor, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to include my own story in this anthology, especially when there are so many other amazing writers out there. After I produce several more anthologies, I may reconsider this approach, but for now, I think it best to keep slots open for other authors.
As you mentioned, Weird World War III is the first anthology you’ve edited. But I assume you’ve read some. Are there any in particular that had a big influence on how you put W.W.W.III together?
Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror Of The Year volumes had a huge influence on this anthology. They introduced me to the work of several authors who ultimately appeared in Weird World War III and Weird World War IV such as John Langan and Laird Barron. Datlow’s volumes also provided a blueprint for what right looks like. Additionally, I benefited tremendously by reviewing David Boop’s Weird Wild West anthologies: Straight Outta Tombstone, Straight Outta Deadwood, and Straight Outta Dodge City. These volumes, which were also published by Baen, offered a great roadmap to follow for a Weird War anthology.
Now, this interview is being done to coincide with the release of Weird World War III in mass market paperback; the original version came out last year. Aside from being smaller, and thus easier to carry, is there anything else different in this new edition?
Other than some promotional content added to the book’s front matter, and the correction of a minor typographical error or two from the prior version, the mass market paperback is nearly identical to the original trade market paperback.
Finally, if someone enjoys Weird World War III, what similar sci-fi anthology that someone else put together would you recommend they check out next and why that one?
If they enjoyed Weird World War III, they’ll love the sequel, Weird World War IV, which is scheduled for release in Spring 2022. The cast of authors featured in that volume is unparalleled and includes: Jonathan Maberry, Laird Barron, Steven Barnes, John Langan, Brad Torgersen, Martin Shoemaker, Brian Trent, T. C. McCarthy, Maurice Broaddus, Michael Z. Williamson, Nick Mamatas, D. J. Butler, Eric James Stone, and many others. Stephen Lawson also has a military robotics anthology coming out from Baen in 2022 that folks should definitely check out. It even features my very own Weird World War IV story, “Manchurian.” As I mentioned earlier, I also highly recommend David Boop’s Weird Wild West anthologies. If they really enjoy military science fiction and fantasy, they should also check out Baen’s The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF.